As emboldened student protests at the University of Missouri, Yale, and UC Berkley rise to national attention, students across the US are revitalizing their protests and updating their Facebook statuses all in the name of solidarity. The recent upheaval of Mizzou gives many students hope that their campuses are, too, about to change. But what Mizzou shows is that if schools are going to engage with social problems that millennials find painfully obvious, it’s cause you’ve hit ‘em where it really hurts: right in the corporate. It all begins by considering the world of the corporate-minded administrator.
Here are some phrases millennials often encounter on social media: Micro-aggressions. Trigger warnings. Rape culture. While it’s often criticized for contributing to students’ infantilization, this new vocabulary addresses certain complexities of social problems that are all too real on campuses and in the world at large.
For example, the concept of “rape culture” helps describe sexual assault trends on the USC campus and the university’s condemnable silence on the issue as examined in “The Price of Sexual Assault at USC,” an article which recently circulated Facebook via news outlets Medium, Neon Tommy, and The Huffington Post.
Twitter campaigns, Upworthy videos, and the like breathes life into words like these, and these terms have swiftly become part of the vernacular of social media, the college student’s second home. These ideas have become such an obvious part of millennial culture, that students attempt to institutionalize these terms sometimes even to the point of over-sensitivity. They are seeking administrations that are proactive about these issues.
The thing is, these millennial-championed ideas don’t translate well from the social media world to the world of university administrations. Corporations don’t operate to provide flexible solutions in the face of social change. Administrators are not in the game of producing enlightened graduates. They are in the business of recruiting students, producing devoted alumni, making business deals, which ultimately maintain the status quo for the Trustees.
If you want examples of a university acting first and foremost as a corporation, just look at the construction projects USC is currently pursuing. The Glorya Kaufman School is one, and it will expand the school’s target market to a new consumer: the dancer. The 65 million dollar University Village is another. This most expensive of projects is expected to bring more diverse recreational and living options to the campus, as well as a fountain, a statue of a mythological character, and “a clock tower in the Collegiate Gothic style,” representing a costly effort to make the USC neighborhood more marketable to potential students. This is how you build a corporate brand.
Sure, the school touts that the new Village will also provide jobs for community members. But meanwhile, the on-campus cultural resource centers for its own students remain underdeveloped. USC’s 169 square-foot LGBT resource center fits eight occupants, which director Kelby Harrison says is “not just small, it’s embarrassing.” The Daily Trojan article Harrison was quoted in also mentions that when a larger space for the Center opened up, the opportunity for expansion was instead allocated to Student Affairs staff. Makes sense that USC, as a corporatized university, would prefer to support administrators rather than students.
Likewise, I don’t think I’ve attended a single USC El Centro Chicano event without hearing fearfully downplayed grievances about the school’s lack of support. One of the murals at El Centro even documents, ever so subtly, the discontent that arose when the Center was forced to move from the University Church to a much smaller room in student union. This is the type of institutionally tolerated disregard for underrepresented communities that makes student activists wonder whose side the school is on. This is the kind of administrative behavior that validates the “millennial” chatter on micro-aggressions.
So it’s easy to see how university corporatization leads to student-championed causes getting stuck somewhere in the bureaucracy so often. The President resigned almost immediately after the football team went on strike. Never mind the months of protest and the student that went on a week-long hunger strike. It was the corporate interests that sparked a noticeable action.
We don’t know if this damning spotlight and student-led threats to job security will result in a responsive and sensitive administration. But we do know that if any progress is to be made, the fastest solution is either to vote for Bernie, who stands for federally-subsidized tuition, which would alleviate universities’ pressing need to engage in corporate models, or students have to attack the university brand until the brand changes.
The latter option means students would have to fight a tough, soul-sucking, and strategically complicated war against a corporation. They would have to create bad PR amongst the demographics the school is trying to recruit, where they reach out to alumni, engage money-making sports teams, and tarnish the name of developments that ignore their causes. Only under these implausible conditions would universities pay enough attention that they might start to seek out trustees and administrators that take diversity, environmental sustainability, and safety issues seriously.
It would be a war of attrition. Who could ever want to play?